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On what there is for things to be

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Stephan Kraemer is the new guy on the Phlox-block making waves as he cuts to the metaphysical chase investigating what there is. Consequently he’s always thinking about grounding, about what philosophers mean by the term, about ontological cheating, about Kit Fine’s self grounding puzzle, about Bolzano’s intransparency thesis and what he got right and what he got wrong, about Quine’s thesis of ontological collapse and why it fails, about why metaphysics answers some ontological questions better than science, about the analytic tradition in Germany and not being able to get clear about what Derrida and his followers claim. Like a cold pint of Doom Bar bitter downed as a last chance, this one’s fundamental…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Stephan Kraemer: I think I’ve always liked to think about things at a very abstract level, and I’ve always been attracted by the precision and clarity of broadly logical and mathematical ways of thinking. When I was around 16 or 17, I found that I enjoyed and was good at software programming and worked part-time for a local software company for two or three years. I quit when the dot-com bubble burst, and decided to go to university. I first chose sociology as a major, because I thought it would be good to do something very different from what I’d done before. I didn’t really know what to take as a minor, and thought I might as well take some classes in philosophy. Only then did I find, to my surprise and more by accident than anything else, that there is a style of philosophy, namely analytical philosophy that fits my taste and talents for abstract, logical inquiry more or less perfectly. One of the first courses I took was a course on the philosophy of logic and language by Wolfgang Künne – one of the big German names in that area and an excellent teacher. I was amazed that there were people investigating issues about logic and language in such a highly disciplined, rigorous, precise, and exciting style. I absolutely loved it, and haven’t looked back since.

So I guess the short answer to your question would be: a strong taste for abstract inquiry, excellent teachers, and a good bit of luck.

3:AM: You’re interested in the notion of metaphysical grounding and are part of the Phlox research group that focuses on this area aren’t you. So first of all, can you say what philosophers mean by this term and why it’s deemed so important by some?

SK: Good question. It’s actually not all that easy to say what philosophers mean by ‘grounding’. For one thing, it’s not clear that all philosophers who use the term mean quite the same thing. Indeed, there are skeptics denying that there even is a coherent notion of grounding for us to investigate. Even setting these worries aside, it’s not easy to give a short, punchy answer to what we non-skeptics mean by ‘grounding’, for most of us think that the notion of grounding is basic in the sense that it cannot be defined or analyzed in more fundamental terms. But those who are interested in grounding and work on the topic tend to agree on at least the following central points.

Firstly, grounding is taken to be a relation of metaphysical explanation between facts. When a fact grounds another, it explains why, in a specific, distinctively metaphysical sense of that phrase, the latter fact obtains. Secondly, it is taken to be an entirely objective matter whether or not some fact grounds another. It’s important to stress this, because the term ‘explanation’ has connotations that might suggest that it’s a subjective or pragmatic matter whether some fact explains another. These connotations are one reason why the term ‘explanation’ can be misleading to describe grounding, and indeed why it is a good idea to have the term ‘grounding’ at all, rather than just ‘explanation’.

Now it’s pretty obvious that some facts are explained by others, that some facts obtain because some other facts obtain. Often, what underlies this relation of explanation are causal connections as studied in physics, such as when the fact that the window broke obtains because of the fact that a stone was thrown at it. But sometimes, it seems plausible that there is a similar relation of explanation between facts even though it isn’t plausible at all that there are underlying causal relations. For example, many philosophers have wanted to say that normative facts – such as that killing innocent people is wrong – might be explained by and grounded in natural facts – such as that the alternative courses of action to killing the innocent tend to produce a greater overall amount of happiness. But there are no causal relations one could plausibly take to underlie such an explanation.

There are also examples where grounding relations seem to track particular sorts of logical relations – these are the cases I am most interested in. For example, since it is a fact that Obama is a politician, it is also a fact that someone is a politician. But the latter fact obtains because (among other things) the former fact obtains.

Now to your second question, why do some people find grounding so important? I think there are two reasons. One is that philosophers want to understand the nature of our environment, of the world that surrounds us. And if there is this relation of metaphysical grounding or explanation between parts of reality, then finding out which facts are grounded in which other facts is an important part of obtaining a better understanding of the nature and structure of reality.

But there is also a second reason that may even have some traction with people who are initially skeptical of the idea of grounding, or its importance and fruitfulness. A number of philosophers have argued that many of the currently and historically most important questions in philosophy are best understood, or reconstructed, in terms of the notion of grounding. I’ll give one example. Famously, Plato’s Euthyphro wondered whether the piety of a pious act is due to it being loved by the gods, or the other way round. That question, many now think, is best understood in terms of the notion of grounding; it is about whether the fact that a given act is pious is grounded in the fact that it is loved by the gods, or the other way round. So a good theory of grounding, in addition to being desirable in its own right, may also help us make progress in various other philosophical debates.

3:AM: Why might someone want to be an ontological cheat and reject the grounding principle?

SK: First, a point of clarification: In the paper that you are alluding to, what I call the grounding principle is a very specific claim about grounding that can be denied, and has been denied, even by a friend of the notion of grounding. Indeed, I myself reject it. It is the claim, roughly, that every fact of the form “it is true that p” is grounded by a fact of the form “object x exists”.

The grounding principle is sometimes advocated by its proponents as a way of catching what they see as ontological cheats. The idea here is this. Take some claim that’s intuitively true. If the grounding principle is true, you have two options: either say that, counterintuitively, it is false, or find some object whose existence can plausibly be taken to ground the truth. In other words, for each claim you hold to be true, you have to foot the ontological bill, you have to find some object that makes it true. These, friends of the grounding principle suggest, are the rules of the ontological game, and if you don’t play by them, you’re a cheat.

Why wouldn’t you want to play by them? Well, the grounding principle seems to have quite substantive ontological implications. Take the true claim that there once were dinosaurs. What object could be such that its existence grounds the truth of that claim? Perhaps any of the formerly alive dinosaurs. But you might have thought there aren’t any such things – after all, isn’t that what we mean by saying that dinosaurs are extinct? That there don’t exist any dinosaurs? So the grounding principle pushes you toward accepting past objects in your ontology: your dead great-great-grandparents, Caesar and Cleopatra, the dinosaurs and what not, all exist, all as real as you and me – only they’re somewhat different from you and me in that they’re past.

Or take the true claim that I could have had a twin brother. What object is such that its existence grounds the truth of that claim? My merely possible twin brother? But surely he doesn’t exist – he’s merely possible, not actual! So again, the grounding principle pushes us toward a quite contentious ontology, namely one containing merely possible objects. And what about the fact that there are no unicorns? Should we really think that there exists some weird object – the absence of unicorns – whose existence grounds the truth that there are no unicorns?

Lots of people have thought that it would be nice if we could avoid these and similar conclusions. There are various reasons for that; perhaps the simplest is that it may just seem a bit crazy to think my dead grandmother (and perhaps my future grandson) or my merely possible twin brother exist. Now if you still want to play by the rules of the grounding principle, you have your work cut out for you: you have to either find some way of making it sound non-crazy that all those apparent truths about the past, or the possible, or the non-existent, are actually false, or you have to find some other objects that could do the grounding work, and whose existence is less offensive to common sense than that of a T-Rex or my merely possible twin brother. If you can justify being a cheat, on the other hand, you have it a whole lot easier, because you can accept some things as true without acknowledging the existence of any objects whose existence grounds the truths.

3:AM: You think certain arguments for cheating don’t work don’t you? Can you outline your approach?

SK: There’s a familiar idea in metaphysics that in constructing a theory of some subject matter there is a kind of trade-off to be made which is often described as one between ontology and ideology. The metaphysics of modality provides perhaps the paradigmatic examples. Consider facts concerning what could have been the case. There is a tradition that accounts for such facts by postulating a multitude of non-actual worlds; the idea being that something that isn’t the case could have been the case if and only if it is the case in some non-actual, merely possible world. That view dispenses with facts of the form “possibly, p” in its fundamental account of the world at the expense of including corresponding facts of the form “there is a world at which p”. As some metaphysicians might say, the view trades the ideology of a certain basic notion possibly for an ontology of many, many merely possible worlds.

Now the grounding principle basically tells you that you have to ground all facts in ontological, existence-facts. But if you reject it, you can avoid some of that ontology at the cost of keeping more fundamental ideology.

The argument I criticize in my paper goes roughly like this. (I am simplifying a bit, so the following isn’t a strictly accurate and fair representation of the actual argument I discuss, which was given by Jonathan Tallant.) Other things being equal, the simpler of two competing theories is to be preferred. A theory that rejects the grounding principle can have a simpler ontology than one that accepts the grounding principle. Moreover, while it gets its simple ontology only at the cost of a complex ideology, a complex ideology should not count against a theory, or at least not as much as a complex ontology. The reason is that ideological complexity is complexity only in the way we describe the world, not in the world itself, the world that we are describing.

It is the last two claims that I reject. If I include in my fundamental account of reality the claim that there is a possible world where I have a twin brother, then if my account is to be correct, reality has to include a certain very special kind of object. And admittedly, if I instead include the claim that possibly, I have a twin brother, the correctness of my account does not require that reality include such an object. But it does require that reality cooperate, as it were, in a different way. Roughly speaking, it has to have the right kind of fundamental modal structure. That requirement is a different kind of requirement than the original one; it is not an ontological requirement. But it is no less substantive for that, and it is a requirement for a certain kind of complexity in the world, it does not just concern our description. Timothy Williamson, who holds a similar view, has therefore suggested that the trade-off I described is misdescribed as one between ontology and ideology, because the term “ideology” does seem to suggest that it is concerned only with the ideas we use to describe the world. But the world still has to do its part, it has to fit with our ideas.

3:AM: Are there still arguments for cheating that you think might work?

SK: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I think there are good reasons to reject the grounding principle. No, in the sense that on my view, that doesn’t give you a way to cheaply reduce ontological complexity and get rid of unwanted ontological commitments. It gives you a way to reduce ontological complexity, but not cheaply: you are stuck with a different kind of complexity, that is just as significant and “expensive”. So on my view, rejecting the grounding principle is not really a way to cheat anymore.

3:AM: Kit Fine has some puzzles that seem to show that some things might ground themselves. This sounds a bit crazy. How do these puzzles work?

SK: You’re right, this does sound a bit crazy. I said that grounding is a relation of metaphysical explanation between facts, and we’re not used to thinking that some facts might explain themselves. A “because”-statement with the same statement on both sides of the “because” does not sound particularly satisfactory. (Ask any child who’s asked their parents ‘Why?’ long enough to be given a response of that shape.)

One crucial trick in Fine’s puzzle cases is that the relevant facts are ones that talk about the entirety of all facts, themselves included. I’ll explain the case that I find most convincing, and therefore troublesome. I said before that it is plausible that the fact that Obama is a politician grounds the fact that someone is a politician. Most philosophers accept a more general version of that claim: if you have a fact of the form “this-and-that is thus-and-so”, it grounds the corresponding fact of the form “something is thus-and-so”. Assume that this general principle is true. Now consider the fact that some fact obtains, call it F. By our principle, any fact of the form “this-and-that-fact obtains” grounds F. But among the facts that have this form is the fact that F obtains. So our fact F is grounded in the fact that F obtains. This already sounds quite implausible, and by some further auxiliary assumptions, we can also infer that F is grounded in F, i.e. that some fact obtains because some fact obtains.

3:AM: You’ve developed some interesting variants on his puzzles haven’t you? What are you trying to do by doing this?

SK: The variants I develop serve to criticize some responses to Fine’s puzzle cases that have been proposed in the literature. As I just hinted, if you spell out Fine’s puzzle cases in detail, they turn out to rely on a number of auxiliary assumptions in addition to the principle I mentioned. Some philosophers have suggested that the right response to Fine’s cases is to reject certain of these auxiliary principles. My variants use slightly different and fewer assumptions, so that these responses do not apply to them. And since it seems plausible that the whole family of puzzles should have a uniform solution, this suggests that either we have to give up on the general principle I stated above, or we have to accept that some facts ground themselves after all.

3:AM: You’re interested in Bolzano and his intransparency thesis. What is this and why is it important?

SK: Bolzano’s intransparency thesis concerns our knowledge of the content of our own thoughts. Many philosophers have found it very plausible that although it is often very hard for one to know whether a given thought one has is true or false, it is not hard to know what it is one is thinking – knowing the content of one’s thoughts, they think, is pretty much automatic. (You might think that anyone who’s been asked, a propos of nothing, ‘what are you thinking?’ by his partner on a few occasions should know better.)

If you look at the issue more closely, you see that there are a lot of different things one might mean by ‘knowing the contents of one’s own thoughts’. There may be a reading of the phrase on which it is indeed quite trivial to have this kind of knowledge. Presumably, if I have a certain thought – say, the thought that the sun is shining – then if you ask me what I’m thinking, I must be in a position to answer that question by saying “I am thinking that the sun is shining”, and I must know that answer to be correct.

Many philosophers have also found it plausible that somewhat different and stronger principles should also hold. One such principle is that if I have two thoughts that have the same content, I should be in a position to know this. And a principle that may be even more important: that if I have two thoughts that have the same content, I am in a position to know the one to be true if and only if I am in a position to know the other to be true. Such claims are sometimes called transparency theses about content, and their negations intransparency theses.

These claims are interesting in their own right, but they take on special significance in the context of certain problems in the methodology of philosophy. Especially during the early days of analytic philosophy, it was thought that (at least a large part of) what philosophers do (or should do) is conceptual analysis. It was thought that a philosopher’s task is to take interesting concepts from ordinary thought and talk, concepts like good, or knowledge, truth, time, and analyze them. At least figuratively, on the traditional understanding, analysis can be described as the attempt to reveal the internal structure or composition of the concept in question: from what other concepts was it composed in what way.

(This probably sounds more exotic than it is. Two examples may help. A boring paradigmatic example of a correct analysis is that of the concept of a vixen as the concept of something which is both female and a fox. You might describe that analysis as showing the concept vixen to be composed of the concepts female and fox, combined by means of the concept of conjunction. A more interesting example is the analysis of the concept of knowledge as the concept of a justified true belief. It was long believed to be true before it was refuted by Edmund L. Gettier in the 1960s.)

Unfortunately, given the transparancy theses, this notion of conceptual analysis, and with it the self-description of especially early analytic philosophy, is in trouble. For if a correct conceptual analysis is to reveal the composition of the analysed concept, then it seems that the analysing phrase (‘something which is female and a fox’, say) must have the same content as the analysed phrase (‘vixen’). But if content-identity between thoughts is automatically recognized as such by any thinker, then any conceptual analysis must be either self-evident, and so automatically recognized as correct, or false. That is the so-called Paradox of Analysis. The denial of the transparency theses, aside from being an interesting claim in its own right, therefore carries additional interest in that it allows one to avoid this paradox, and thus potentially restore to consistency some philosophers’ accounts of what it is they do.

3:AM: Why do you think the thesis could be correct but Bolzano wrong about it?

SK: Given that it seems prima facie quite plausible that content should be transparent in the way described, it is unsatisfactory simply to insist that it isn’t, just so that one can avoid paradox. One needs to give a good explanation why the mistaken transparency view should have seemed so plausible, given that it is false. Bolzano attempts to give such an explanation, but it is based on an implausible view of how we come to acquire knowledge of the content of our thoughts, and in particular their identity and composition.

That’s in a way not surprising. It’s still a very hard and puzzling question how our mental acts of thinking relate to their contents, and what it means to know their contents, and how we do that. Bolzano was writing about these questions at a time (in the early 19th century) when the tools available to approach such questions were much less sophisticated than they are now, so it is not to be wondered that his view cannot be considered plausible these days. At least he had a definite view, stated it with admirable clarity, which is more than can be said of most of his contemporaries.

But even though Bolzano’s defence of his intransparency thesis was not very convincing, the thesis may still be correct, and I believe it is. What makes the idea that the contents of our thoughts are transparent seem so compelling is that our thoughts, and thus their contents, seem to be in our heads, and that it seems that the present goings-on in our head should be transparent to us. However, I think that this line of reasoning embodies a mistaken conception of how the contents of our thoughts are determined. I think the externalists are right in maintaining that various factors outside our own minds are involved in fixing the contents of our thoughts. They may include how other members of our linguistic community use the expressions of the public language in which we think, and they may include aspects of the non-linguistic world that our thoughts are about. And since such external goings-on are usually not transparent to us, but rather things we can easily be ignorant of, we can also be wrong about the contents of our thoughts.

3:AM: Your dissertation won the Wolfgang-Stegmüller Prize of 2012. There you challenged Quine’s thesis of Ontological Collapse. So this involves the way second order quantification collapses into first order quantification. To an outsider this sounds both technical and perhaps only relevant to philosophers working on the problem. Before explaining the idea in detail can you say what reasons we might have to think we ought to be bothered about it. What’s at stake – what motivates the problem?

SK: You’re right that the question sounds very technical; I think perhaps it sounds a bit more technical than it is. For in the end, as I understand it, the question is to a large part about what kind of fundamental structure reality has. I’ll try to explain in a moment what I mean by this. So in a similar way to how grounding is important to some philosophers – as an important part of understanding our world – this question too might be of interest to someone just because they are curious about what the world is like at this level. That was, by and large, my motivation in pursuing the question: it just struck me as interesting.

But I realize that I may be a bit unusual in that respect, and it is at any rate a fair question whether there are other reasons to care about the issue as well. And it does indeed have important implications for a number of other topics in metaphysics, philosophical logic, philosophy of language, and the philosophy of mathematics. Unfortunately, these connections are themselves technically quite involved, and so explaining exactly why they obtain would require too lengthy a detour. I will therefore simply mention some examples of such connections; you will have to take my word for it that the connections in fact exist.

We already talked about the metaphysical principle that every truth must be grounded in the existence of some object. This principle is often justified on the basis of an intuition that truth depends on being, or that there is no truth but reality makes it so. It turns out – or so some have argued – that if we can use devices like second-order quantification, and if they do not collapse into first-order quantification, we can do justice to these intuitions without subscribing to the claim that it must always be the existence of some object that grounds a given truth. Since many arguments for the existence of some controversial sort of object are based on this claim, the question of collapse has important indirect implications for these debates.

The status of second-order quantification is also important for certain debates about logical and mathematical paradoxes such as Russell’s paradox of the set of all sets that do not have themselves as a member (is it a member of itself?) or the so-called Liar paradox of the sentence that says of itself that it is false (is it true?). Some attractive views about what we should say about these paradoxes depend on the assumption that second-order quantification does not collapse into first-order quantification. Finally, in the philosophy of mathematics, there are some puzzles about what the natural numbers are and how we manage to refer them in an unambiguous way for which solutions have been proposed that also require the falsity of Collapse.

But let me try to provide a clearer sense of what is meant by saying that second-order quantification collapses into first-order quantification. First, what is meant by first- and second-order quantification? A first-order quantification is a statement like “every electron has negative charge”, or “some particles have no mass” that concerns what kinds of things there are (here, none that are electrons but have no negative charge, some that are particles and lack mass). A second-order quantification is a statement like “Bill is something Bob is not (namely rich)”, or “Plato is everything a philosopher ought to be” that concerns what ways there are for things to be (some way that Bill is and Bob isn’t, no way that a philosopher ought to be but Plato isn’t).

Now there are two alternative views, a first-orderist and a second-orderist one, about the fundamental structure of reality. They differ with respect to what sorts of statements one would have to include in an accurate and comprehensive description of reality if the view in question were correct. On the first-orderist view, you have to say what things there are – you, me, the Eiffel Tower, or perhaps really just all the smallest particles from which all these things are built – and to what sorts of things they belong – persons, buildings, etc. Once you’ve done that, says the first-orderist, you’re finished, that’s all there is to say about the world. On the second-orderist view, you have to say more: you also have to say, roughly, what ways there are for things to be (rich, poor, tall, small, snub-nosed, positively charged, negatively charged), and to what sorts they belong (ways every electron is, ways no proton is, ways some but not all people are, ways Socrates was famous for being, …).

So does the first-orderist simply reject all these further claims? No, but he thinks that they only look as though they are claims of a different kind, whereas they actually reduce to claims of the first kind. The second-order claims, such as that there is some way for things to be (say, alive), such that you and I are both that way, thus collapse into related, ordinary first-order ontological claims, such as that there exists a special kind of object, namely the property of being alive, or perhaps the set of things that are alive. Hence my label ‘Ontological Collapse’ for the first-orderist’s thesis.

(You might think that the distinction between saying that there is some way for things to be, namely alive, and saying that there is some property, namely the property of being alive, seems very subtle indeed, and you would be right. But often in philosophy, subtle distinctions make a big difference.)

So you could say that the second-orderist does not include more claims, but claims of more different kinds, in his fundamental account of the world than the first-orderist. Now, to take up a theme from earlier, it is important to see that this is not merely a matter in the vocabulary used to describe the world, it corresponds to a different view of what reality itself is like. If the world is as the second-orderist has it, it has in a certain respect a more complicated structure than the first-orderist thinks.

3:AM: So do you think that arguments for ontological collapse fail?

SK: Yes, I do. In my book I examine three arguments for collapse; as far as I can tell, there aren’t any plausible others. Two of these arguments are somewhat technical in character since they concern, at bottom, what a formal semantic theory for a language that includes second-order quantifiers can look like. A third argument is only slightly less technical, it questions whether natural languages like English include any such thing as irreducibly second- or higher-order quantification. I think they do; some of the sentences I mentioned above, like “Bob is something Bill is not (namely rich)”, are examples. But I also think that even if they didn’t, it would not matter much, since there is no reason to expect that every meaningful coherent notion must be expressed by existing vocabulary in a natural language.

What I aim to show in the book is that the arguments for collapse all rely on premises the second-orderist can happily reject. Unfortunately, victory for the second-orderist is not complete, for I do not know any argument he could give against collapse that does not rely on premises that a committed first-orderist would have to accept. The bulk of the evidence, it seems to me, speaks against collapse, but there is no knock-down argument from uncontentious premises that could demonstrate the falsity of collapse. As is often the case when such basic questions are at issue, holistic considerations will have to help decide the matter. Further work will have to show which of the two views leads to the overall more attractive and powerful picture of reality.

3:AM: What difference does this make to what things there are and what there is for things to be?

SK: The main difference is that on my view, there is a further good question of what there is for things to be in addition to the question what things there are. Proponents of collapse deny that. But the point also has implications for some influential arguments for the existence of certain contentious kinds of things. For instance, many philosophers think that we need to accept an ontology of properties because we need to talk about properties for various theoretical purposes. But second-order quantification can do much of the theoretical work otherwise done by talk of properties, so if you accept second-order quantification as an irreducible linguistic device, then you have less reasons to believe in an ontology of properties.

There is actually an interesting related point that ties back to the grounding principle we talked about earlier. That principle is often justified by appeal to innocent sounding slogans such as that truth depends on being, or that a statement can only be true if reality makes it so. The grounding principle cashes out that slogan as saying that for every true statement, there is an object such that the truth of the statement is grounded in the existence of that object. But if you allow yourself to use a certain kind of higher-order quantificational device, you can cash out the slogan in an alternative way, which does not yield the same ontological implications as the grounding principle. It’s hard to express that alternative formulation in English, because natural languages don’t seem to offer quite the right quantificational resources. My best attempt is this: for every true statement, there is some way that things may be said to be such that the statement is true because things are that way.

3:AM: There are skeptics about the whole area of metaphysics who think that scientists are the only guys able to tell us about ontological matters. So what do you say to those who wonder why they should listen to the philosophers?

SK: It depends a bit on what one counts as ontological matters, I guess. There are lots of questions about what sorts of things there are and how they behave that scientists are in the best position to answer. But there are lots of philosophical questions of a similar shape that are not like that. Are there any merely possible worlds, and if so, exactly what are they like? Are truths of necessity and possibility grounded in truths about what possible worlds there are (or perhaps the other way round)? Is a statue identical to the lump of clay that constitutes it? Could a material object like a table have been made from entirely different material? Is there a coherent notion of metaphysical explanation / grounding, and what are its properties? For these questions, it is utterly unclear how research in the sciences could help us to answer them. If you want answers to them, ask a philosopher. (The skeptics may not care about these questions, but then the point is not about who to ask, but about what questions one finds interesting.)

There are of course also areas where philosophical and scientific inquiry connect and overlap, and where accepted scientific theory might have important implications for metaphysics. Still, to work out what these implications are, you need to understand both the physics and the philosophy. So if these are the questions the skeptic cares about, then he should ideally listen to people who are both trained scientists and trained philosophers. As a rule, though, scientists are no better at doing philosophy than philosophers are at doing science.

3:AM: You’re working in the analytic tradition of philosophy in Germany aren’t you. Is the analytic tradition strong on the continent and what does the so-called analytic/continental divide look like from there – and for a relatively new guy on the block?

SK: Yes, there is a strong analytic tradition in Germany and on the continent more generally, even though it is probably safe to say that it is not as predominant here as it is in the UK or the US. What knowledge I have of continental philosophy actually derives from courses I took in sociology around 10 years ago as a first- or second-year student. Especially French philosophers like Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, and Lacan are read quite a lot in that area. I wrote a term paper once on some of Derrida’s work, but I certainly don’t have any in-depth knowledge of the continental tradition.

When I got into analytic philosophy, it became clear to me that my time was more profitably (and enjoyably!) spent engaging with work in that tradition. Having gotten acquainted with and used to the standards of clarity, precision, and rigour applied by analytic philosophers, I realized that I hadn’t actually understood much of what, say, Derrida had said in the things I’d read. One time, a couple years later, I did try quite hard for another term paper to work out a reasonably clear and explicit interpretation of bits in Derrida or his followers, and found that it was impossible for me. So I myself struggle to get much out of the literature in continental philosophy and for better or worse have largely stopped trying. Nevertheless, I admire efforts to bring the two traditions together, and I am sure there is much to be learnt on both sides from a better mutual understanding.

3:AM: And are there five books you could recommend to us here at 3:AM that would take us further into your philosophical world?

SK: You would have to start with the works of Gottlob Frege, whose work on logic, language, and the philosophy of mathematics, was absolutely groundbreaking. I’ll recommend his most mature work on philosophical logic, his Logical Investigations. Wolfgang Künne’s book Conceptions of Truth is a model of clarity and most other philosophical virtues. Then W.V.O. Quine, From a Logical Point of View, which is still fairly accessible and forms the backdrop to a large part of the discussion in logic, language, and metaphysics in the second half of the 20th century. I’ll also mention Modality and Tense by Kit Fine, an immensely creative philosopher and one of the two contemporary philosophers that impress me the most. The other is Timothy Williamson; his The Philosophy of Philosophy articulates and exemplifies a conception of philosophy that I have a lot of sympathy for.


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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 21st, 2014.